Drinking a glass of milk is easy but producing the milk itself is a tough job, writes Kerry-Ann Augustin
A CLOUD of mists weaves its way through the dense jungles as the first rays of dawn hits Chemor, Perak. By then, a group of men clad in their trusty yellow Wellington boots are already drenched in sweat. They’ve been awake since 4am, roaming an area of land, where the moos of cows and the bleats of goats accompany the morning soundtrack of crowing cocks.
The men, all four of them, are in different parts of the farm; it takes two men to carry the large hose to clean the ranch where the cattle are casually munching on their feed, while the other two carry huge baskets filled with long, green corn shoots. They shift the shoots into an incinerator of sorts, mincing it into bite-sized feed before dumping them into a long feed pan where hungry cows await. By the end of the day, they’d gobble down 40kg of corn shoots each. The men with the hose shift their focus from the dung-covered ground to the cattle whose shiny coats gleam as water is sprayed on them. This will be the first of three baths for these big-eyed creatures.
A few baths, a healthy dose of nutritional food and a clean, comfortable, cool barn to snooze the day away sound like a dream come true for cows but these are the very things that matter when it comes to producing good milk. And this is something that the Dutch farmers know all too well.
Since 2013, dairy manufacturing giants Dutch Lady have relied on the experience and expertise of Dutch farmers to train local famers how to care for their cattle. The exchange, supported by the Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) and the Embassy of the Netherlands, and known as the Farmer2Farmer programme is already in its fourth year and is yielding more than just results — it’s also changing the way we look at milk.
Farm animals may have traversed the peninsula a long time ago, when traders brought with them other livestock at the region’s busy ports. However, it was Indian migrants of the early 20th century who kick-started the agricultural craze for dairy farming in the country, bringing with them the long-standing practice of cattle farming from their motherland. The cattle they brought in adapted well to the country’s scorching temperatures but produced insufficient amounts of milk to feed the growing demand for it. Later, cattle cross-breeding was practised and by 1966, the newly independent Malaysia would go on to adopt a stance on increasing the number of local milk production colonies.
It was barely eight years later that a programme catering to smallholders was developed under the National Dairy Development Programme (NDDP) as part of the New Economic Policy (NEP). DVS was roped in to offer assistance to smallhold farmers, helping them with everything from transportation to storage, as well as supervisions of their product. Milk Collection Centres were set up in Perak, Malacca and Johor, where a majority of milk-producing cattle farms are located. By the 1970s, milk production was on the rise just as demand for this nutritious beverage increased.NOT LAND OF MILK AND HONEY
When the obsession with science and technology started to blanket the country in the 1980s however, less and less focus was given to agriculture. It was only during the financial crisis of 2007 that food security became a priority and the need to rely less on imported milk and cattle became urgent. The self-sufficient rate for milk in this country then stood at five per cent, a figure which the country aims to raise to eight per cent by 2020.
“There’s so much more work to do,” confides Jan ten Kate, one of the three Dutch farmers who is down for this year’s Farmer2Farmer programme. “The first thing I noticed when I was here last year was the lack of awareness local farmers had of the milk quality,” he says, adding that the quality of milk will affect the whole chain. “The lower the quality, the fewer things you can produce with it and the more work you’ll have to do.”
For ten Kate, who runs his farm in the north of the Netherlands, the whole chain starts with how you take care of your cattle. Hailing from a family of farmers spanning three generations, ten Kate shares that Holland’s most notable products like cheese and chocolates can’t be produced with high-quality milk. “We have a veterinarian who comes by the farm every month to check on the health of the cows.
And we have very strict regulations on how the farm is kept — the kind of feed we give the cattle must be of high-nutritional value and the farms must be clean. That’s no easy job!” he says, adding that the milk goes through a string of tests before it’s sold to corporations which then sell them to dairy manufacturers like Dutch Lady.
“If a batch of milk doesn’t pass even one out of the three tests, it’ll be thrown away.” Here, in Malaysia, the same rules are applicable — DVS closely monitors milk production via a series of tests as soon as the milk is delivered at 9.30am and 4.30pm daily.
In a paper titled Dairy Sector In Malaysia: A Review Of Policies And Programs, authors Rachel Mei Lin Sim and Chubashini Suntharalingam of the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi), reveal the kind of challenges the industry faced in its 40-year existence. From a lack of training and skill to harsh natural environments, poor dairy farm management and high feed cost, the authors point out that the lethal combination of all these factors will present an early death for the industry, something ten Kate agrees with.
“The feeding of cattle here is a problem,” says ten Kate, who observes that many smallholder farms find great difficulty in providing proper feed for their cows which has a direct impact on the quality of milk produced. “The farmers used to be able to let their cows graze on King Grass but these days finding huge quantities of that are getting more difficult,” he says in reference to the rapid development and the increasing difficulty of finding places for cows to graze.
For dairy farmers Thangayan Paramasivam and his cousin Doraraj Madurai who are one of the few people chosen to partake in Dutch Lady’s Farmer2Farmer programme this year, feeding is an expensive aspect of the business, yet highly necessary. “We spend close to RM30,000 just on feed here,” says Thangayan, referring to the bags of soy, palates and truckloads of corn shoots they bring in every day for the 150 cattle they have on their land.CASH COWS
The Farmer2Famer programme involves farmers like ten Kate sharing ideas on a variety of things, including good farm management, milking practices, feeding programmes, breeding programmes, hoof care and hygiene management. At the heart of it, however, is the exchange of knowledge, something ten Kate says, is very much a part of a farmer’s heritage. “You can be a farmer anywhere in the world and you will have that in common — the passion for what you do and the fact that all farmers learn from each other.”
In the Netherlands, where almost 10 per cent of their exports are dairy based, agricultural school is a must. “Many assume my family and I don’t go for holidays because it’s a lot of work. But I just came back from Ibiza!” he says with a laugh, adding that getting to that point takes time. Going to agricultural school helped farmers like ten Kate to improve their methods, improve technology on the farm, produce good quality milk and earn better, something he feels the local farmers here could benefit from.
Of all the technical know-hows, methods and regulations, ten Kate reveals that it essentially goes down to one simple, basic rule: “If you’re good to your cows, your cows will be good to you.”